From the Archive: What do you do with actors?

TV Drama

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

 

Actor/director Vinny Murphy talks about directing actors.

In this article, rather than give a ‘Tips for Directing Actors’ list I would like to try to take the subject seriously, just for a laugh.

As an actor, before I ever directed, I was often asked by directors for advice on directing actors. I was shocked by the questions they would ask. ‘What do you do with actors?’ they’d say. ‘I’ve heard they have their own language you have to learn,’ they’d say. A lot of these people had been to film school and some had made a few shorts already. They seemed to be dealing with some strange alien life form. I’d ask what had they done with these strange ‘others’ before: they either couldn’t remember or they said they’d done nothing – basically they didn’t know what had happened. It still holds true today that colleges spend very little, if any, time on this obviously extremely important aspect of filmmaking. It seems to be the last thing anybody making their first film ever thinks about. ‘The director got sucked into the camera’ is an old way of saying the director didn’t deal with the actors and, from what I hear and see, there are still directors getting sucked into all sorts of old and new cameras all over the country.

Why does this happen? I think the main reason is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of this ‘other.’ It’s much easier to talk to the DOP because you’re talking about tangibles.
The job of a director is so huge and so full of pressure that it’s very tempting to look for excuses when something isn’t working. It’s great, you can say ‘the actors just aren’t getting it, what’s wrong with them?’ and hey presto! If those useless actors aren’t getting it, what can you possibly do? The point is that it’s the director’s responsibility to create a situation where the actors can do their most interesting work. It’s not just when you talk to them, it’s the entire situation the actors find themselves in. If that responsibility sounds both huge and vague, then welcome to the world of film directing!

Question: How do you direct actors? Answer: ‘I don’t know.’ – Jim Sheridan

What Jim Sheridan meant was that he doesn’t have a technique that fits any situation. Every film is different, every actor has to be worked with differently. It’s much too personal an activity to be able to apply broad strokes. The worst thing an inexperienced director can have anywhere in their head is the notion: ‘They’re actors, they should be able to do anything.’

My favourite bad move by an inexperienced director is where they go over to the actor, talk at them for five minutes (or more, which is worse!) and walk away with a satisfied look as if they’ve just completed their part of the bargain and now it’s up to the actor. For a start, an actor can’t really take in that much information in one go. The actor is not looking at the script the way a director or a script editor looks at it. If I look at a script that I am about to script edit, I can read it and understand it very clearly. If I am given the same script because I’m going to be acting in the filmed version of it, that’s a horse of a different colour altogether.

When I’m script editing I’m looking for the high view – how the thing is structured, exactly what is it the writer is trying to say and how to make that clearer. The script editor has to be a bit hard-nosed about it, cold. So it may look like I’ve suddenly become stupid when I’m an actor and I’ve just been given a script. It’s not just that somewhere I’m thinking, ‘Oh shit, I have to perform this’, it’s that my entire relation to that script is different. I’m looking for clues to help with a very different process. My thinking isn’t so clear because, whether I’m aware of it or not, what I’m trying to do is to sink down into the script. I’m looking to go down south, to find the warmth of it, the moisture of it. Maybe, in a way, I have to become stupid in order to grow down into the script before I can grow up through it again.

Whatever way you look at it, when an actor is given a script, it’s a very different process to that of a director. And a director needs to be drawn in to the vortex that is the actor. How far to get drawn in depends on the job, but there has to be some drawing in going on – what else is there? So the director gets drawn in to the actor’s vortex and knows the actor is going to get drawn in to the director’s vortex. Knowing how much of this vorticity business you are up for is something you can only find out by doing it.

When it comes to directing actors, maybe it should be called indirection. If you tell an actor what to do, they will try to do what you tell them, unless they’re really good, in which case they will try to turn what you say into something they can work with. No actor can ‘do’ a direction. There is no tube through which a direction travels from the director’s head into the actor’s soul. What the director says will have to find a filter through which the actor processes the information and turns it into something which can be used. If the director gives the actor an image (in the widest sense of the word) the actor can take that and get something from it. What it is that they get and how they translate that into action is the mysterious part.

‘…psyche knows more what it wants with itself than I may be able to imagine or interpret.’ – James Hillman

The psyche of the actor knows more about what should be done with the scene than the director. So the job of the director is to access that and not engage the actor in a discussion about the craft. You’re trying to get the actor away from the craft. Instead of giving a ‘result’ direction like ‘be more angry,’ you might, for instance, ask if they’ve ever been so pissed off (try to avoid the word ‘angry’ – it has too many bad performances attached to it already) with someone that they wanted to physically hurt them. Now, hopefully a bunch of images floods into the actor’s head – not just one specific memory that they’ll re-enact, but a vortex (again) of images that will bring up physical, emotional and psychological activity relevant to the situation. Or maybe you’ll do something totally different. What matters is that you see a move in the actor’s eyes or something that indicates they’ve got something from you.

A particular actor who had a fair amount of experience was new to my classes. We did a scene where part of the exercise is that I don’t say a single word about the script and we shoot the first take. The scene was complex. It was about the character’s resentment towards his sister for not helping out in caring for their sick father, his own feelings of guilt for not doing more himself, his attempt to understand her and then his disgust when she refuses to commit to helping again. None of this was immediately apparent from reading the script and he thought it was about him flirting with her. He ‘thought’. There’s your problem right there, buddy. He read the script and then decided what he was going to do in advance. For the next take I told him to stop thinking and planning ahead. He gave the same performance again. I talked a bit more about not deciding anything and just listening to what she’s saying and to what he’s saying and to do it as if he’s no idea what’s going on and to just be open. We shot it the third time and he gave this incredibly complex, rich, moving and slightly scary performance – everyone in the room was in thrall to it. I asked what had he gone through during the take. Not what did the scene now mean or what did he ‘think’ of it but just historically, what had actually happened? In explaining, he gave a perfect account of all the complexity that was supposed to be in the scene.

What had happened? He had connected to the images that came to him and had stuck with them. Instead of drawing from the shallow well of what we can ‘think’ up he had drawn on the bottomless pit of all that’s unconscious, and that had guided him to a truly marvellous performance.

I’m not suggesting directors shouldn’t say anything to actors and then expect amazing performances, but that the actor needed to find it for himself. Otherwise he would have ended up trying to squeeze what I had told him out of the script. Squeezing a script is never a good idea. A script is supposed to set up images that get things out of the actor, it’s not for the actor to try to grab things out of the script.

In this country, like most others, actors find themselves turning up on set, maybe having done a play (which is a different discipline altogether) two months ago and a film the month before that. They turn up on set with no continuity of practice, no juices flowing, no warmth, no moisture. They’re dry, cold and fearful. And on a bad set what happens first thing? They’re told what to do. ‘You stand over there and say your first line, then go over there and sit down at that table for the rest of your lines.’ They rehearse; the director tells them that it’s not what they want. ‘Be more angry when you say that.’ They do a take. Nobody says anything – now they feel even colder than when they walked in! And then next take is bad – but of course it’s bad, how could it be good?

‘I’m gonna spend loads of time with the actors on set’ is a phrase I’ve heard an awful lot. It never happens because you can’t spend loads of time with anyone when you have a hundred things to decide, fix, oil, shape, manoeuvre and get out of the location in twenty minutes. But you have to keep the actors warm and moist! Even the biggest Hollywood stars all turn to the same place when they hear ‘cut’ – the director. That’s the only place they can find out whether they did good or bad.

A director needs to establish their own brand of relationship with actors beforehand and keep that warm by talking to them, not necessarily even about the scene. If you are talking about the scene, talk to one actor at a time – this way, you don’t end up with the actor trying to prove to the others that they can do your direction and the relationship stays intimate. Most importantly, the actors aren’t supposed to know exactly what the others are going to do anyway.

So directing actors becomes not so much about using your imagination, but keeping the imagination of your actors alive. It’s the director’s responsibility to create a situation where the actors can offer their most interesting work.  This isn’t their ‘best’ work, because it’s not about being good or bad. It’s about being either engaging and arresting or just adding to the numbness that is available on and off the screen everywhere.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 132, Spring 2010

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Taking Stock As a Writer – With Some Help From My Nemesis

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Screenwriter Caroline Farrell on the challenge of embracing her nemesis – procrastination

Writing, for all of us scribblers, is a necessary pain in the arse. Thinking about writing, as opposed to doing it, is the big, weeping boil that sits on top of that pain in the arse, throbbing away until action is taken and the lancing begins. Thinking about why we write, and what we choose to write about, is…well, think of the most pain-filled analogy you can imagine and place it firmly on the top of that weeping boil…

Of late, my nemesis, that little bastard aka procrastination, has come to visit again, and has not been kind, cruelly and mischievously pushing me, unawares at first, through the gawd-awful door of reflective thinking. Once there, I am finding it nigh impossible to break away from analysing almost every thought and action, and not just my own.

Bewares, people, I is watching yiz!

Seriously though, it’s uncomfortable, painful even, and at times, probably akin to the navel-gazing that I generally abhor so much, but it is all helping me to finally ‘get it’. To understand stuff, personally, historically and socially; and to fully realise that through this reflective, and mostly silent, journey, I can finally accept where my personal, creative and social vision is rooted.

Taking stock of my own experience, from where I have come to where I am now, I am also forced to examine the why.  In realizing the why, I can make meaning of it all; the way I look at the world, my every action and reaction, and my sometimes frustratingly innate sense of responsibility that is relational, though built around a strictly selective connectedness that can be at once liberating, but also, an invisibly lethal thread of confinement and inertia.

In her book, The Heroine’s Journey, written from the view of a feminist in response to Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Maureen Murdock wrote on the difficulties of our life path as women.

“It has no well-defined guideposts nor recognizable tour guides. There is no map, no navigational chart, no chronological age when the journey begins. It follows no straight lines”.

Yes, of course, this sentiment applies to men also, and is an appropriate description of the pathways towards transformation and self-realization for all of us. In response to Murdock’s book, Campbell said,

“Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”

Yikes!

Whatever you believe, the truth is that very few of us come out into the world as adults, unscathed and perfectly intact, but by God, we learn from the experiential!

I cannot imagine a way of expressing my visions without understanding a life journey that so far has run the gamut of experiences and emotions that have offered me unimaginable joy. But there have also been the far from positive aspects. And in looking back, there is fear, there is disappointment, there is anger and there is regret, though I firmly believe that out of every dark place comes a glimmer of light.  The best we can hope for is that we, as scribblers, can look back on these sequences of our personal journeys and know intuitively that these learning processes have helped us to rise to the challenge of becoming critically reflective writers; authentic voices, and at the very least, empathic ones.

Sincerity and intention are not enough.  So thanks for that, I say begrudgingly, to my Nemesis.

Featured Quote from:  Neil GaimanThe Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections

 

Caroline Farrell is an author and screenwriter:

In Ribbons, written by Caroline and directed by Marie-Valerie Jeantelot, is currently in post-production.The film is produced by Caitriona Costello, Marie-Valerie Jeantelot and Caroline Farrell and has just been selected for the Kildare County Arts Film Bursary Award 2013.

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DSLR Filmmaking Tips

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The most exciting development on the filmmaking scene in a while is the advancement of DSLR filmmaking. Filmbase’s 2-Day DSLR Camera and Lighting Filmmaking course provides detailed training in shooting and getting the best results out of versatile DSLR cameras.

 

Here, cinematographer and Filmbase tutor Basil Al-Rawi (Opus K) gives Film Ireland some DSLR filmmaking tips:

 

Stabilising

DSLRs, by their very constitution, are made for taking stills. Thus when it comes to filming with them, they are an ergonomic catastrophe and any attempt to shoot handheld without support will result in shaky unusable footage.  Hence an entire industry of third party add-ons has spawned to assist with shoulder mounting and hand-holding the camera. There are innumerable options out there, many of which can be substandard and awkward to use. Stick with brands such as Zacuto and Red Rock who have a pedigree in making mounts for DSLR and you’ll be happy with the results. Filmbase rent a Red Rock shoulder rig which fits the bill nicely. Another issue with DSLRs is what’s known as the ‘rolling shutter’. Due to the way the sensor reads the image, vertical lines bend when you pan quickly making buildings seem to wobble. Err on the side of slow and steady pans to alleviate this problem.

Lenses and Focusing

One of the primary attractions of filmmaking with DSLRs is the shallow depth of field they offer, often referred to as the ‘film look’. This is in part due to the very large sensor size offered by the Canon 5DmkII and 7D over traditional video cameras (full size 35mm sensor on the Canon 5DmkII versus a ½ inch chip on something like the Sony Ex-1). This huge sensor allows for great results in low light and an extremely shallow depth of field. The lack of on-camera focus peaking options can make focusing a challenge, especially when you or your subject and you are trying to work off a 3-inch LCD screen in sunlight (note: autofocusing is not an option when shooting video with DSLR). Zacuto make a viewfinder that can be attached to the LCD screen to magnify the image or you can use a good quality HD monitor, some of which have peaking options to assist with focus. A follow focus unit attached to your DSLR rig will also help you pull focus smoothly, keep track of focusing points and reduce camera shake if trying to adjust focus off the barrel of the lens. For best image results stick with prime lenses if possible and try not to shoot wide open as most lenses do not perform that well at their widest aperture. There are some great used Nikon manual focus prime lenses on the market and you could acquire a very decent set of these for the same price as a single Canon autofocus L lens.

Shutter Speed & Exposure

The golden rule for shutter when shooting with DSLRs is to always double the frame rate to get your appropriate shutter speed. So when shooting at 24 or 25fps on a DSLR, set your shutter speed to 1/50th second. If you are shooting 50fps on the 7D, set your shutter to 1/100th. This setting maintains the correct amount of motion blur in your video to achieve the ‘film look’ and is derived from the 180 degree shutter angle rule from the world of film cameras.

When selecting ISOs, choose multiples of 160, i.e. 320, 640 and 1250. The higher you go with the ISO, the more sensitive to light the camera becomes but the trade-off is noise and artefacts in the image. Going above 1250 is not recommended as the resulting images are unusable due to the amount of noise.

DSLRs do not have any inbuilt neutral density filters (ND filters) so to avoid having to stop down to f/22 when shooting on a bright day, invest in a vari-ND filter which you can screw onto your lens. This allows you to smoothly control the amount of light without affecting your desired f-stop.  A few step-up and step-down rings won’t go astray either so you can use the same filter with multiple lenses with different thread sizes. Alternatively, you can use 4×4 ND filters if you have a matte box.

Profiles

The factory picture profiles on the 5DmkII and 7D introduce a lot of compression and processing to your image which results in less than desirable dynamic range. To preserve more detail in your highlights and shadows and acquire an image that you have more freedom to grade in post, use a third party picture profile such as Marvels Cine Style and Technicolour Cine Style. These profiles give you a very flat image which doesn’t look great on camera but it will allow you much more freedom to grade with.

Workflow

The Canon 5DmkII and 7D shoot video in a highly compressed codec called H.264. This codec is a viewing codec, not an editing one, and as such one of the first things you should do before editing is to convert your H.264 footage into Apple Pro Res 422. This advice is primarily aimed at those who will be cutting on Final Cut Pro. This process essentially involves decompressing your footage from H.264 into the much higher quality  and less compressed codec Pro Res 422. Mpeg Streamclip is a file converter that will do the trick and what’s more, it’s free.

Batteries, Cards & Sound

DSLRs eat batteries for breakfast in live view mode. Come armed with at least three fully charged spare batteries and have a charger on the go to avoid running out of steam. Choose memory cards which are fast enough for video, you can’t go wrong with the Sandisk 60MB/s range.

The on-board mics on DSLRs are only of use for reference sound. To get decent sound quality, use an external recorder such as the Zoom H4N. Synching sound in post is less of a hassle these days with the Pluraleyes plugin.

 

Click here for details of all Filmbase’s training courses

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Don’t Put All Your Shelf Puppies in One Basket…

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Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Caroline Farrell gives an inside view on how to get your scripts out there.

It’s a fact folks that writing screenplays is a time-consuming, arduous and lonely process. Unless you are going to make your own movies, or are lucky enough to establish that all-important writer/director/producer relationship and collaborate to create great movies together, the opportunities to sell your scripts are few and far between. Once you know this and you still, like me, find the time to write every day and get excited when a new plot finally begins to take shape, then blessings on your head, and read on!

Also, like me, you have probably gone through the polite and proper process of contacting producers with your initial letter of inquiry, to be told, absolutely, yes, send on your script… and you do… and you wait… and you give them a little nudge… and you wait… and you nudge them again and you hear absolutely zero.

Or, you get a quick scribble of an email informing you that they are too busy… that old standard ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ vibe. Yeah, we’ve all been there, right?

No matter, we still continue to be true to our craft and creativity with the hope that some day we will see our characters come to life before a rapturous audience. So, once we have polished our screenplays to a state that we feel is presentable to the world, just what exactly are those elusive things we call opportunities? How do we get our scripts out there?

On a national level there are well-established routes to pursue:

Filmbase
In partnership with RTÉ offer twice-yearly short script awards. You must become a member and pay an annual fee to be eligible to enter.

The Galway Film Centre
Also in partnership with RTÉ, offer an annual competition. You must become a member and pay an annual fee to be eligible, and you must also have a director and producer attached.

The Waterford Film Festival
Runs an annual Short Script Competition and the entry fee is quite reasonable.

The Irish Film Board.

The board offers other funding opportunities and short script awards. This can be a successful route for many, though if you’re thinking of submitting for a writer only, first draft loan, I say go for it, but in the event of your submission being rejected, be strong, learn from the experience and don’t take it personally!

And here’s the thing… your project is not dead in the water if it is rejected by a producer, or indeed, by any of the above. There are other options to get your work out there, to get feedback, gain confidence and to ensure that your name and reputation becomes synonymous with serious script writing.

One of those other options is entering international screenwriting competitions.
I can hear the questioning silence. Is that it? Is that all she’s got? Okay, so not all screenwriting competitions are worth bothering with, especially when most of them require an entry fee and often seem to be a well-calculated marketing ploy to sell script consultation services. Who among us can afford to hit the PayPal path continuously anyway? Not me, that’s for sure. So the key issues that concern me when considering entering a competition are:

• What are the credentials of the organisers?
• How much will it cost me?
• What will I gain if I am placed?

To avoid wasting time about the pros and cons of each one I have researched, I shall only list my top five, and in no particular order:

Nicholl Fellowships
This is a prestigious award. Up to five $30,000 fellowships are awarded each year to promising new screenwriters. From the program’s inception in 1986 through 2009, over $2.8 million have been awarded to 121 writers.

PAGE Awards
Great opportunities may present if you are placed in this competition, including the chance to get your script read by industry professionals, raise your writing profile and there is a generous cash prize for the overall winner!

Kaos Films
An opportunity to get your short or feature script made, and this one is judged by a group of extremely high-calibre professionals.

BlueCat
Initial feedback is included in your entry fee. For a further, discounted price, you also have the opportunity to re-write and re-submit your work after receiving the initial feedback. I decided not to avail of this service, but still reached the semi-finals in 2010.

Zoetrope
Run by Francis Ford Coppola, part of the prize is to be considered for representation by the William Morris Agency. Also, the website offers opportunities to engage online with the international writing community and is a good source of feedback.

Writer/Director Shane McCabe’s recent success stories confirm what can be achieved by taking the competition route. Shane’s feature script ‘Probable Cause‘ was placed third at the 24th Annual Write Movies International Competition, and the script has also recently been short-listed as a Semi Finalist at the Austin Film Festival, giving Shane priority access to all meetings, round table discussions, luncheons and screenings.

In 2009, another of Shane’s scripts, ‘The Base‘, scooped the top prize at the Back in the Box Screenwriting Competition. As a result, it will go into production next year with Shane attached to direct. Shane explains the benefits: ‘Following the victory at the Write Movies event, the festival organizers will now actively pitch the winning scripts to all the major studios, as well as many production companies. A good few doors will now start to open for me. I’ve been knocking on them for so long it’s so nice to have them open finally.’

In 2009, screenwriter Eilis Mernagh won a place on a screenwriting workshop at the Bristol Encounters Short Film Festival. As part of her prize, she got a free pass to the whole festival, as well as the chance to see some professional actors and a Bafta-winning director do a reading of her script.

Eilis reckons that there are three main advantages to winning competitions, ‘I put a short script into the Darklight festival last year and they produced it as part of the Hotel Darklight. This was huge as it gave me my first screen credit. I now have a CV with a produced credit and that’s really helped when talking to producers etc. The Darklight experience also introduced me to a lot of people, some of whom were also good enough to work on a short I produced in April this year. Lastly, there’s the kudos from winning, or placing, in a competition. I mention any small gains like these in my CV and it helps to grease the wheels. I won’t stop until I’ve won the PAGE Awards grand prize!’

Dublin-based screenwriter Eoin Rogers has been writing screenplays for four years, and in that time, has entered nearly twenty competitions. Eoin says, ‘As someone who finds the discipline of regular writing and rewriting difficult, competitions provide me with an external deadline as well as judgement (and sometimes validation) by independent professionals.’

Eoin’s script ‘Red Flag’ recently won 1st Prize in the Action category of the StoryPros Screenwriting Awards. He adds, ‘Each time I have applied to competitions, I have seen my scripts rise higher and higher until finally placing and eventually winning an international category. That particular script is now being read by Paramount and I might be sending it out wide to try to get an agent, and ideally an option or sale. Competitions are definitely one way to get read by local and international agents and producers. If a script has already been objectively approved, everyone else suddenly becomes more likely to read it.’

Eoin was also the third prize winner in the family category of the PAGE Screenwriting Awards with his script, ‘Alice beneath the Waves’.

So there you have it my fellow scribes, success stories that prove it can be done. In terms of opportunities to get your work out there the world is your oyster, so get cracking! The competitions listed in this article are by no means a definitive list. There are good websites, such as MovieBytes.com, which list all the major competitions, and include entry fees, deadlines, ratings and feedback which is helpful when making a decision as to whether to enter or not.

So no excuses now, dust off those shelf puppies, do your research – and re-writes if necessary – and who knows, perhaps we’ll see more familiar names in the 2011 finals. The very best of luck!

Caroline Farrell has been writing scripts for a little over three years. Her short script, ‘In Ribbons’ took second place in this year’s Waterford Film Festival, and she was also a finalist in the 2010 PAGE Awards with her feature script, ‘Pixer Knows’, a fantastical children’s adventure. Her script, ‘Lady Beth’, a dark drama, got to the semi-finals of the 2010 Kaos British Feature Screenplay Awards, and ‘The Lupii’, a horror feature, reached the quarter-finals of the Champion Screenplay Competition this year.

Email: farrell.caroline@gmail.com

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